Are You Dematerializing?

Are human beings excessively preoccupied with the material world?

Dematerialization is a key feature of today’s economy (PanAm Post).

Are you dematerializing? I ask, not because I think you are overly concerned with material possessions and should become more ascetic. Nor am I trying to find out if you are dematerializing to be tele-transported back to the Starship Enterprise after asking Scotty to beam you up.

Dematerialization in economics refers to a reduction in the quantity of materials required for economic functions. Dematerialization also means using less, or no materials, to deliver the same level of functionality in a product. In short, dematerialization is about doing more with less. So essentially, I am asking if you are using fewer materials in your life. I had never thought much about this topic until introduced to it by neuroscientist Steven Pinker. Below, I will borrow from his presentation.

The Club of Rome, (ironically now based in Switzerland), is made up of distinguished, politicians, scientists, business leaders, and officials from governments and international organizations from around the world. It describes itself as “an organization of individuals who share a common concern for the future of humanity and strive to make a difference.” Its mission is “to promote understanding of the global challenges facing humanity and to propose solutions through scientific analysis communication and advocacy.”

In 1972, The Club of Rome published an influential report titled “The Limits of Growth.” Using sophisticated computer simulations, the report predicted a steadily increasing demand for materials as economies and population grew exponentially. Given a finite supply of material resources, the report’s computer simulations extrapolated that the increasing demand for resources would eventually lead to an abrupt worldwide economic collapse. The Limits of Growth report sold 30 million copies in more than 30 languages. It became the best selling environmental book in history. And it was wrong.

Current studies on the use of materials and economic growth show that, economies are growing using much less physical materials. How can this be? Here is where Dr. Pinker simplifies the complex science for us with examples we can relate to. My old music collection, (and I suspect this is true for most of my readers) required many cubic yards of vinyl for my long-play records. In time, this material use was reduced to only cubic inches for compact disks. And now, my music collection in MP3 requires no materials.

The paper and ink used to print my daily newspapers, and the fuel used to deliver them have been replaced by my almost material-less iPad. Mobile phone systems do not require much in terms of telephone poles and wire. My extensive paper files and file cabinets are gone. My material-less files are now stored in the cloud (wherever that is). The office supply store must be missing my frequent purchases of reams of paper.

And, as Pinker remind us, “just think of all the plastic, metal, and paper that no longer go into the forty-odd products that can be replaced by a single smartphone.” This one device has replaced our old telephones, our answering machines, phone books, cameras, and camcorders, tape recorders, radios, alarm clocks, calculators, dictionaries, Rolodexes, calendars, street maps, flashlights, fax machines, scanners, compasses, and more. That is a lot of materials not being used.

You are dematerializing, and so is everyone else on the planet. Technological advances allow us to do more with less and, “The digital revolution, by replacing atoms with bits, is dematerializing the world in front of our eyes.” The world is also being dematerialized by technologies that enable the sharing of things that used to sit unused most of the time. Think of shared automobiles, unused bedrooms, power tools, etc., that Uber, Airbnb, and others are facilitating.

What I find most instructive is that, this reduction in our use or materials was not compelled. It required no government coercion. We reduced our use of materials spontaneously by the free choices made with our purchases. There is something sublime about how technological progress and free markets can decouple our personal flourishing from the material world. We are not becoming Mahatma Gandhi-like ascetics, but we are surely dematerializing. And that is good for the planet. Beam me down, Scotty.

Dr. Azel‘s latest book is “Reflections on Freedom.”

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